Just Halberds

This is my own, very simple 2d6 system, an RPG that’s easy to run. I created it because friends wanted to play again, using something simple, online during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 when we were all confined to our homes.

2020-05-25 SLUG

I was just reminded of SLUG by Fudge creator Steffan O’Sullivan, from 1992 & 1993.


Each character is described any way the player wants. … When the GM asks a player to roll some dice, the player should roll some dice. … With the GM’s permission, … traits can be added, or existing traits or skills improved, after the gaming session.

I was quite impressed by that at the time. I was also in love with Fudge and bought my Fudge dice back then.


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2020-05-06 I need strong guidance

Yesterday’s post about fudging dice is still churning around in my head. I just realised that back in 2019 I linked to a post by The Alexandrian called GM Don’t List #9: Fudging. As I said back then, “Justin Alexander doesn’t just provide the justifications people might give to defend their fudging but also refutes these, and links to blog posts with even longer refutations, if you feel like reading up on it. And then he judges you for fudging if your still do it. Its a failure state, he argues. Think about what led you here and learn from it — improve your game instead of continuing to fudge.”

OK, so how do I improve my game? I think that I felt in some way that I had bee unfair to my players, not granting them the bonuses they expected for the things they did and when this was compounded by back luck, and I was rooting for them, and I was nervous, and staring at that result, having just heard what the fighter had rolled, and I just blurted out “Seven!” when it should have been a nine, or thirteen, or whatever.

So why did I feel the players had been treated unfairly? It all has to do with the nature of Just Halberds. In a classic old school D&D game like Halberds & Helmets I can always fall back on pure mechanics. Today, for example, the party was accompanying a necromancer back to the entrance of his tower intending to murder him. One of the players asked: “Is there a good spot where we could attack him?” I said: “You’re crossing two rooms, descending two flights of stairs, and out the main entrance, onto the ledge leading to his tower. There are plenty of excellent spots! But none of them give you a mechanical advantage if that’s what you’re looking for.” We all laughed and the game continued. We all understood that at my table, when combat starts, it’s dead simple. No maneuvers. No mechanical benefits for this and that. Make your calculations, decide whether you want to risk combat, and then when it starts, things are incoherent, tactics are hard, and then you die. Or not. Mostly you don’t die, actually. But the point still stands. There is not a lot of negotiation at the table when in combat.

But Just Halberds is different. My notes:



Burning Bone of the Mountain
☐☐☐☐☐☐ +6
Fire breath
Bite •
Claws •
Size •
Tail •
Wings •
Armour •
Roar •

My intention was basically this: +6 is the dragon’s bonus at its best. So when players use their advantages, obviously the bonus should be less. A simple rule would have been: whenever you put an opponent at a disadvantage, add +1. Thus, as the water mages cast water waves into the dragon’s cave, +1. As they freeze the water around it’s feet, add +1. When they’re all resistant to fire, +1. And when you fail at your roll, the fiction is still established. For example: the dragon roars, +6. The water mages cast their waves into the dragon’s cave, +2. They lose the opposed roll and suffer somehow. But the water is still established.

Maybe they take damage from the roaring as stones start falling. The situation made it impossible for the dragon to reach them, so it didn’t make sense for bite, claws, size, tail, or wings to have an effect, and the water was not held back by armour, tongue, armour, roaring, or flattering...

So, then I started wondering: actually, why isn’t the dragon rolling a lot less? May its size helps against the water, maybe its roar shakes the water mages, so let’s say it rolls +2?

I wasn’t sure, I was in the midst of combat. I decided it rolls +4. And then I argued the dragon was cooling with all the water and ice, so maybe it just rolls +3.

And when the fighter still kept failing, taking a little damage again and again as the rest of the party watched the rolls, I fudged a roll.

I know it’s silly because I’m writing the rules myself. But the rules provide guidance that helps my through the nervous spots, the uncertainty and doubt. If I had known how to handle a dragon at a disadvantage, I would have known that I was treating everybody fairly and I wouldn’t have been tempted to fudge.

Anyway, all of this to establish that my list of monsters might need more than a single line for stats. Or that the system needs more guidance for referees like me. Perhaps a simple: roll 3d6 drop highest might have been a great disadvantage dynamic? I remember seeing that in Barbarians of Lemuria. I need to think about that.


Comments on 2020-05-06 I need strong guidance

I have read today and yesterday posts about fudging. I do not like fudging either, as a referee I always roll in the open.

The key question is why did you fudge the roll? To spare the life of a character? To avoid a TPK? To make an enemy tougher?

Fudging dice are not the only way referees can adjust the difficulty of the game on the fly. We can change the total hits a monster can take, how many enemies appear, modifications to the rolls... And enemy actions are also a way to manage the difficulty: focusing all attacks on the same character, being reckless/cautious... Do you feel guilty after doing any of these things?

An option is to announce the modifiers before the roll. If needed, agree on them with the players. Fast, a quick discussion of one or two sentences on how the fiction translates to mechanics. Do not negotiate; if players want something, they have to do it (as PbtA games say, “to do something, do it”). Then roll and adjudicate.

You can treat the opponents of Just Halberds the same as characters. A list of skills and powers; each one that applies to the situation at hand adds +1 to the roll.

  • dragons ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡ huge, armour, wings, fire breath, bite, claws, tail

As K’Dare the firebreather steps out the cave, his immense (+1) scaled (+1) body reaches to the sky, with a deep roar that make your bones tremble. From there, he unleashes hell on all of you, spitting fire (+1) as he flies (+1) above your heads. What do you do?

For the disadvantage, I am unsure about rolling 3d6 and drop highest. Then you will need an advantge roll (3d6 drop lowest). How will that skew the 2d6 roll statistics? Why not use modifiers?

– Ludos Curator 2020-05-07 12:31 UTC

Yeah, you’re right. And when you write it up like that, it’s clear that K’Dare the firebreather 😀 is quite easy to hurt using water magic. Maybe his immensity and his flying will help, but if you catch him in a cave, then it’s only his size (+1). And thus the might dragon is reduced from +6 in a fair fight to +1 vs. water magic.

I like it.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-07 13:11 UTC

Regarding advantage/disadvantage, I’ve thought of this rationale:

Occupations, skills and special abilities/powers are internal factors, inherent to the character or monster. Each one that applies adds +1 to the roll.

External factors are independent of the people acting. They represent extraneous aspects that can alter the task difficulty. If they make it easier, roll with advantage (3d6, drop lowest); if harder, with disadvantage (3d6, drop higher).

As a referee I constantly struggle to choose the proper modifier for a task. Is the rain distracting the archers enough to confer a -1, -2 or -4 to their attack? Who knows... 😕 Using advantage/disadvantage I choose with confidence. And players feel it more tangible.

So, players describe their characters actions. They know what occupations, skills and special abilities apply to the roll. The referee judges the situation and decides if any participant has advantage or disadvantage. Everyone rolls the dice, and the referee narrates the outcome.

– Ludos Curator 2020-05-10 09:27 UTC

I definitely think that advantage/disadvantage has the advantage 😁 of being super light on the referee. You can stop thinking about it immediately. There’s no need to concern yourself with determining how big of an advantage exactly. None of that. Just advantage/disadvantage. I like that.

Still now sure whether I want to add it to Just Halberds, tough. 😅

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-12 11:23 UTC

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2020-04-29 Dungeon maps are overrated

Remember the small dungeon generator integrated into the Hex Describe tables written by J. Alan Henning and ktrey parker?

Today I got to use one of them!

Map The map looked very simple. But the dungeon was themed for a dragon. It had big, weed-smoking, story-telling lizard people, it had stinking, small and haggard lizard people (troglodytes), and a sleeping red dragon in a cave at the end with a back entrance and a hidden crack that one of the characters discovered to take a peek at the treasure. The treasure consisted of more than 1000 platinum coins and 80 jewellery, so worth about 90,000 gold pieces!

The first room was described as a natural cavern. The second had a wooden cage. The dragon’s room was some sort of temple. The rest just flowed naturally. There was enough description to get me into the flow and I was able to improvise the ruins of the town, the cave entrance, the hidden chute forming the back entrance, the dynamics of lizard people outside being hungry but harmless (they got killed by the player characters) and the sneaky and mean troglodytes (who nearly killed the player characters).

Thus, even though I was using Just Halberds and not Halberds and Helmets, I found that the mini setting generated by Hex Describe is working exactly as intended and I love 😍 love 😍 love 😍 it.

And there is more than just the dungeon! The setting itself generates villages and towns each in the hand of a name-level character. Halberds and Helmets only goes up to level 10, so these are all rulers with 9 or 10 levels, one or two followers with 3 to 8 levels, spell-books, magic items, and so on.

When the players picked their characters at the beginning, a few of them turned to elemental magic – and as luck would have it, elemental magic users are common in the mini-settings generated by Hex Describe. So they quickly found a village ruled by an aquamancer, a village ruled by a geomancer, a village ruled by a pyromancer, but also an elf that’s into monster hunting, and others. If they want to advance, they just need to learn more spells, and in order to learn more spells, they need to befriend the magic users, go on quests and all that, and I’m basically following the Morrowind playbook: there are many powerful local lords, plus three war parties, three secret societies, ten religious groups, and various monster factions such as orc tribes. It’s easy to befriend them but they all have conflicting goals and therefore, soon you’re trying to learn a spell from the geomancer who’s trying to eliminate a secret society in a village ruled by a pyromancer who’s technically in rebellion against Duke Shire, and on and on. I love 😍 love 😍 love 😍 it. I really do! 😁


Comments on 2020-04-29 Dungeon maps are overrated

Sounds awesome. It is right to immerse the spell casters in the power maelstrom of their crafts. Then let the cards fall where they may - it’s just true that real connections (ones of importance or quality) bring potential allies and enemies.

– doublejig2 2020-04-30 20:19 UTC

Yes! 😁

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-30 20:28 UTC

Just waited to say how much I appreciate your blog. You write from such a practical standpoint about your games, that it always inspires me. The reminder about the dungeon generator came at a perfect time as I’m going to be running a mostly impromptu game of Mausritter this weekend and really needed some kind of little dungeon at hand that I could retheme for the game.

Derik 2020-05-01 12:46 UTC

Thank you so much for the kind words. 😅 I read some entries on your blog and find the tagging of partial entries fascinating. A very cool idea that lends itself to journaling about a day or an event which is going to touch on many things. If such where to happen here, I’d have to tag it “Life” or “Philosophy” (assuming I learned anything, haha) – very broad categories. I haven’t seen such a setup before. Did you write it yourself?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-01 13:14 UTC

Yes, I ended up coding my own static site generator (to build from markdown files) because all the available options were too confusing or complicated, and then added that category show/hide stuff because I was... new to the idea of not just blogging about one very specific thing (my old blog about comics). It is a bit of pain tagging paragraph by paragraph, though.

Derik 2020-05-01 19:52 UTC

Yeah, probably true. But as a reader, I find it fascinating. Start reading, find that it belongs into another context as well, do you click that other tag, do you care to read more, it’s a more interactive way of reading. There’s always that “tell me more” moment that isn’t as generic as “tell me more about RPG” but “tell me more about this story, what else was there?” Fascinating.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-01 21:23 UTC

I love maps. As Greg Stafford said "What's not to love about any non-linear presentations of information?".

The settings created by Hex Describe are pure gold. They offer plenty of content to play for years. And they do it with succinct information, inspiring without constraining. Emergent play at its best. Brilliant job, Alex.

How do you use the dungeon maps? We tried different methods. The traditional approach (give directions and describe corridors and rooms as the party explores and maps the depths) do not work for us. We preferer letting the referee draw the map as the party advances. When we played the City of the Spider Queen using D&D 3.5 I, as the referee, drew all the maps with penciled colours. The players loved it; it was gorgeous but time-consuming.

We still have to try the dungeon maps produced by Hex Describe. These days I prefer this type of smaller dungeons. We don’t have as much time to play as we had years ago. I’m still unsure of how we will use them: I don’t know if we will explore the dungeons room by room or if we will shift to a more abstract approach.

– Ludos Curator 2020-05-10 10:22 UTC

In this particular case, they killed a dragon hunter and took the map from him. I just handed them the map as-is. In describe rooms and environments, for room 1 on the map: “a big natural cave, low ceiling, alcoves and hard to see in its entirety; in the back there is a gap leading further into the darkness. Who is carrying the torch?”

I often mix relative and cardinal directions, I use qualitative terms like long, short, big, and small instead of feet.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-10 10:35 UTC

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2020-04-22 What about opposed 2d6 probabilities?

I was wondering: if we roll opposed 2d6 rolls, what are the chances of beating your opponent? It must be around 50% but somewhat less, because both rolling a seven – the most likely result – is undecided, that is: you didn’t beat your opponent.

And what about your chances when you get a +1 and your opponent doesn’t? I started wondering but I also didn’t want to dive back into the introduction to statistics I must have in my bookshelf somewhere. And I also didn’t want to look it up on AnyDice.

I started thinking: with just 2d6, it should be possible to explain it all using tables and counting... and I did it! I wrote a little three page PDF about it: Understanding 2d6 Math.

Enjoy! 🙂


Comments on 2020-04-22 What about opposed 2d6 probabilities?

I’d also consider loop N over {0..11}{output 2d6-2d6<N named "+[N]"}

edkalrio 2020-04-23 12:19 UTC

Oh, very cool! Thank’s a lot.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-23 18:07 UTC

Ynas Midgard’s review of Best Left Buried makes me think I should have a look at its mechanics...

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-27 08:17 UTC

It always struck me as super weird that Starblazer and Anglerre didn’t use 2d6 vs 7 instead of the cockamamie system it went with, which has the exact same probabilities as 2d6 vs 7 in every single way.

Sandra 2020-09-14 21:44 UTC

Ah, those were the 1d6-1d6 systems, right? A sort of Fate dice alternative. I think they wanted to keep the Fate ladder and that’s why they didn’t want to start using a ladder centred around 7 instead of 0... But I’m just guessing.

– Alex 2020-09-15 08:00 UTC

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2020-04-20 To specialize in combat

Yesterday’s session was interesting in terms of playtesting. Remember our setup? We had one more spellcaster this time around:

  • Boris the fighter
  • Rothilion the archer
  • Legoshi the archer
  • Sora the assassin
  • Nonuru the aeromancer
  • Natascha the aquamancer
  • Fo Pi the pyromancer
  • Kingu the geomancer

Also remember that last session did not involve any fights. This time around, Boris the fighter wanted to fight! Soon, one of the sidequests that popped up was “retrieve the sword Meteorstrike from a band of bugbears outside of town.”

As explained previously, when taking notes for a fight, I just add up all the hit dice and go from there:

  • bugbears ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ ♡♡♡ +1 swordfighting, sneaking, ambushing

That’s a lot of hits!

The players managed to sneak up to them and surprise them. How did I handle surprise? I let the initiative system carry it: whenever a player acts for the first time, they can use any +1 they get because they’re sneaking or ambushing or assassinating, depending on their skill; and as long as the players keep the initiative, the bugbears count as surprised, meaning they can’t use any of their skills effectively, thus they fight at +0 instead of +1.

Sadly for the players, I still rolled very well and two characters dropped to below zero hits. One player noticed that there was always a chance to lose four hits in every roll, so the game was super dangerous. We decided to keep using the notorious Death & Dismemberment table. It’s very forgiving when it comes to dying. And so the two characters rolled one more time:

2instant death: beheaded or similar; the victim may only be raised by resurrection
3fatal wound and death at the end of the fight: pierced lung, cracked spine or similar; regeneration can avert death; the victim may be raised by resurrection or raise dead
4loose a limb; roll 1d4: 1 – sword arm, 2 – shield arm, 3, 4 – leg; death can be averted by applying a tourniquet or cauterizing the wound with fire, you can regrow the limb using regeneration
5, 6broken bone; roll 1d4: 1 – sword arm, 2 – shield arm, 3 – leg, 4 – rib; healing takes 2d4+9 weeks (sessions); regeneration can mend broken bones
7, 8unconscious for the rest of the fight
9stunned: at -1 for the rest of the fight
10knocked down: at -1 until you spend the initiative to get up
11you can take it!
12adrenalin rush! Get back one ♡

Remember we still use the names and descriptions of a lot of D&D-like spells with every spell being a special ability characters can learn.

Sadly, one of the players rolled a 2 and their character died. They announced that they are going to play a fighter, next.

Indeed, that’s one of the issues I noticed tonight. The lone fighter really dominated the game: it was very easy to nominate them for the next roll, and they interposed themselves a lot when the others got attacked (and indeed when they did not, the archer went down).

On the one hand, the player of the fighter got what they wanted. They wanted a fight, and they got a fight. They’re playing a fighter and they totally ruled. That’s cool.

The spellcasters realized that if they wanted to join a fight, they needed guards – they needed a front rank to hold back the enemies. The alternative would be a game like last session where the party decided not to fight. Sadly, they also don’t have many people versed in talking, so it’s a bit weird. They have a lot of spellcasters that want to fight.

I’m not sure: is this a problem of the rules that I need to fix, or is this a problem the players need to solve? 🤔

When I talked about it on Mastodon, @Halfjack said:

Be careful when playtesting of turning a player’s concerns into a failure to address the game. If they aren’t getting it, it’s possible the game isn’t pitching it yet.

Good point.


Comments on 2020-04-20 To specialize in combat

I love my random mini-setting generator Hex Describe spitting out magic weapons I added to it so long ago. Like this one: “The long sword Meteorstrike +1/+3 vs. dragons, an old elven sword forged in the dragon wars.”

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-20 17:14 UTC

I will say that from personal experience running a lot of PbtA and similar games with initiative rules like the ones in Just Halberds, those sort of rules tend to favour some players over others a lot. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a lot easier for a fighter to come up with a cool plan to keep up with a thief or wizard out of combat than it is for a thief or wizard to keep up with a fighter in combat. It also gives more talkative and outgoing personalities more attention. You can always try to put more attention back on the people that are more reserved but at that point it defeats the point of a fluid form of initiative (for me at least).

Your mileage may vary, of course, but classic D&D initiative is one of the first things I houserule into a lot of games I run. That’s the fun thing about simple rulesets though. If there’s something you don’t like, it’s super easy to change.

Malcolm 2020-04-22 04:12 UTC

Good point. For now, I think I can manage the more talkative players at the table. There’s a very extrovert dad and there are some introverted children at the table, and that dynamic has to be kept in check all the time or else we’ll do all his quests and follow all his suggestions.

Right now I fear the problem might be in the punitive consequences of failed attacks. The fire mage wants to throw a fireball in the fight. They roll +2 for being a fire mage and knowing the fire ball spell. The orcs are tough melee fighters and not particularly strong against fire so the roll +0. That is still a significant chance to take four points of damage.

In a Powered by the Apocalypse games, a hard failure isn’t always damage, it’s also other hard moves. I’ll have to think about that. On the one hand, I appreciate it more, now. On the other hand, it also puts more burden on the referee to decide the exact consequences and I don’t like that, speaking as a referee.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-22 05:11 UTC

In today’s game we used surprise rules again: the hidden troglodytes were well hidden, camouflaged as rocks in a dark cave, with a distraction set up, and the players looked up, expecting an attack from above. The troglodytes (6) ♡♡ ♡♡ ♡♡ ♡♡ ♡♡ ♡♡ +2 spear, stink, camouflage, had the initiative and while they had it, it was the surprise round and the players had to roll +0. It was brutal, they avoided the fighter and I ruled that as long as they were surprised, the fighter couldn’t guard anybody. One character dropped to zero and fell prone (-1 until spending the initiative to get up); another character dropped to zero and fell unconscious; others got hurt... then we rolled a few standoffs and I decided that this was enough to allow them a getaway, just as the guardian naga was approaching.

I’m happy with how it went.

Sadly I’m noticing how bad I am at basic math: I rolled an 11, they rolled an 8, that’s … uh … 3 … more than 1 … round up … 2 hits lost! It’s pathetic but that’s how it is. I wonder whether I can write a simple lookup table. 😀

I guess I still like Just Halberds because combat is so simple and by that I mean it requires so little involvement. It’s brutal and stupid, as it should be. It works well for kids and some adults alike. It’s a totally different mind space than deciding whether to risk alienating Melly the pyromancer, whether to visit Kevin the geomancer, whether to investigate the secret society of the Aurora, or to destroy two temples of Orcus. When you’re in a fight, the game is different, and I like that.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-29 19:10 UTC

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2020-04-18 The advantage of outnumbering others

As I’m running more sessions of Just Halberds, I’m starting to wonder about this 2d6 system of mine. In combat, as we’re rolling one exchange after another, always opposed 2d6 rolls, I’m realising: ten orcs with one hit each are absolutely equivalent to one orc with ten hits. I even stopped noting how many individuals were still left. My notes just said:

orcs ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡ +1 tough

But yesterday I was porting my old adventure over to this system. Originally, it was written of B/X, Labyrinth Lord, or Halberds & Helmets: 2014-01-02 Bryce Likes My Adventure. This is it:

I wasn’t always happy. What does it mean if you fight five trolls?

trolls ♡♡♡♡♡♡ ♡♡♡♡♡♡ ♡♡♡♡♡♡ ♡♡♡♡♡♡ ♡♡♡♡♡♡ ♡♡♡♡♡♡ +3 like stones

That is a lot of hits. As I moved on to the three wolves I started thinking about pack tactics. Wolves circle you, then one of them snaps at you and you scare it of, another one bites you from behind. Would that work for ten orcs, for five trolls?

Suddenly I’m thinking: if combat is a long sequence of opposed 2d6 rolls, then we’re doing cinematic fight choreography – no matter how many thugs are surrounding the protagonist, there is ever only one of them attacking, basically. In a way, it doesn’t matter: the protagonist is so good at fighting that they can control the fight such that the others don’t dare attack. Two and more attacking at the same time is rare. A superhero can beat back a hundred orcs if they can hold the gate. I guess that works for me. It’s good to know that this is the effect the rules have, though.

Or do they? Let me think. Let’s look at the most extreme case: the hero is only ever hit when the hero rolls a 2 and the opposition rolls a 12. For this extreme situation to do a minimum of damage, the hero must be getting +9 to their roll and the opposition a +0. The hero’s result is 11, the opposition’s result is 12, the difference is 1, and so the hero takes one damage. The chances for this result is 1 : 6⁴ or 1-in-1296. Assuming that the hero has 10 hits total (assuming they have 3 hits, heavy armour +2 and a shield +2, for example) then we’re going to assume that it the hero is going to succumb after having killed about 12960 members of the opposition. Worthy of the songs written about the 300 that held the Hot Gates.

Anyway, let’s return to the question of pack tactics and wolves. How about this deal: pack tactics is a special ability. Wolves have it. Two bad-ass fighting companions might have it. As long as somebody from your pack is still in the fight, all members of the pack get +1 to their attacks and their defence.

Going back to my monsters I’m wondering: who would have pack tactics?

  • bandits
  • bureaucrats
  • dwarves
  • elves
  • guards
  • wolves

Perhaps some humans would be too arrogant to use pack tactics? How about:

  • generals
  • knights

What do you think? We could also say that this is already factored into the monster descriptions and their bonus, in order to keep each monster on a line. Perhaps just expanding the wolf entry:

  • wolves and wardogs ♡♡ +1 when they’re fighting as a pack


Comments on 2020-04-18 The advantage of outnumbering others

You could always handle pack attacks like Electric Bastionland: roll 1d6 for the pack, plus 1d6 for each individual member of the pack. Pick the highest d6, and add the two dice together.

Norbert Matausch 2020-04-22 16:39 UTC

Interesting idea. We’ll see whether this is necessary. “Roll multiple dice and pick the best one” has the benefit of limiting the range of results. I’m not sure I like it, though. I’ll report back when I run into more “outnumbering” issues at the table.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-23 08:19 UTC

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2020-04-16 Conflict without violence

I ran another game for a friend of mine and six kids via Zoom. It went fine. Today was the first session without a fight and some of the kids were vocal about the fact that there had been no fight. They wanted to fight! Even though we have don’t have many fighters in this party. Today we had:

  • Boris the fighter
  • Rothilion the archer
  • Legoshi the archer
  • Sora the assassin
  • Nonuru the aeromancer
  • Natascha the aquamancer
  • Fo Pi the pyromancer

The conflicts all required people to talk and none of the characters had social skills. They convinced the marauding soldiers to quit their marauding and return home, with the help of a hefty bribe; they failed to convince the powerful water mage to leave their home and move elsewhere; they managed to convince the bitter elf that they had “resolved” the problem with the powerful water mage and had him reveal the power of the dwarven piecer (a magic sword). There were a few more rolls – whether the fighter was making a good impression on the water mage, whether the old woman in that village would talk to the archer, whether she trusted the archer, and so on.

I guess this is simply a post to say that the simple 2d6 system I’m using works quite well for non-combat conflict. 👍

As for the setting, I’m using a mini-setting generated by Hex Describe. That is, it’s a setting with stats and treasure for a classic D&D campaign using typical treasure tables and magic items. I’m essentially trying to talk myself into “every level is worth a skill” (and every skill may or may not be worth +1).


The dragon hunter fighter _Ravivarnan_ (level 9) is trying to hire two score desperate peasants to go and slay _Burning Bone of the Mountain_ (2209). “I am generous: two shares of the treasure found for me, the rest to be shared equally amongst the other survivors.” A potion of _silver tongue_ (royal purple, silvery flakes, 1h, everybody who hears your voice must save vs. spells or be _charmed_ ). A goblin assassin’s _short bow_ +1 with plenty of notches along its side. A suit of elven _plate armour_ +1 with elven runes commemorating the slaying of the green dragon _Forest Despair of the Forest_.

I’m starting him with 3 hits for being a hero, +2 for heavy armour, +1 for the elven bonus, +1 for the shield, for a total of 7 hits.

As for skills, I’m brainstorming nine “skills” based on the description above: dragon hunter, assassin, archer, hunter, sneak, talk, heal, climb, stab.

Let’s say the party manages to jump Ravivarnan: I might give him a +2 with his knife (assassin, stab). If Ravivarnan manages to ambush the players, however, I’ll give him +5 (assassin, archer, sneak, climb, goblin assassin’s short bow +1). I imagine him climbing up to an excellent position, preparing his arrows, and then as long as he wins the opposed rolls he keeps the initiative and keeps shooting. In order to close in, they have to beat that. It imagine that this is going to be hard.

As for magic items, I think simply taking magic items with their D&D bonuses works really well and makes them wonderful. I make sure to provide visible magic effects: the dwarven piercer +1 has glowing runes that can be activated; the plate armour +3 dedicated Nergal is black and has green lines of glowing power pulsating when activated. It works well.

The plate armour +3 turns the fighter into a power house: 3 hits, +2 for heavy armour, +3 for the magic bonus, +1 for the shield, for a total of 9 hits! At least he can tank...

As I'm using this setting, I realize how many high-level characters there are, how powerful the magic items are they carry, how easy they are to kill if you meat them alone and you have a party of seven or ten characters... We’ll see how this develops. Perhaps this is not a campaign to run for fifty sessions. Maybe just twenty sessions? I don’t know.

I’m thinking of announcing that building a stronghold and establishing yourself simply costs 100’000 gold pieces. It’s an idea I got from Freebooters on the Frontier, if I remember correctly. Perhaps that’s a good way to make all the money found mean something. Right now the D&D treasures distributed by Hex Describe are mostly useless for the characters in this campaign. Making a building the explicit goal of the campaign (or the optional exit for the characters) makes sense to me, at least.


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2020-04-12 The effects of stats in simple games

If you’ve played OD&D, or Swords & Wizardry, or any of the other old school games out there, you have encountered this before, regarding monster stats: monsters have hit dice (HD); this determines how many hit they can take, on average. Each hit die is 1d6, and each damage die is also 1d6. In later games, the picture is not that simple anymore. In B/X we already notice that many fighters have a strength bonus, but monsters also use 1d8 for hit dice. For the purpose of this blog post, I don’t care about the details.

I care about this relationship: every extra HD allows a monster to survive one more hit; every extra HD also allows a monster to hit more easily; extra HD also allow a monster to better resist spells.

What does it mean to survive more hits? It means that fights take longer, or that monsters can take on more enemies. It’s not that simple because the monster is also better at hitting the opposition. Without that twist, it’d be boring: four characters hit a monster with 4 HD and it’s dead; four characters hit monster with 8 HD and it takes two rounds to kill. The difference is that the 8 HD monster probably deals more damage to the characters. Most likely it also has special abilities that make it even more dangerous. That’s why I think save or die effects are important.

The net effect is hard to predict and that’s probably what makes the game interesting.

I’m trying to apply the same kind of analysis to Just Halberds.

Characters fight monsters by rolling opposed 2d6 checks. Monsters have hits (like HD in D&D) that allow them to survive longer but more hits don’t increase their ability to deal damage. So simply adding more hits just makes fights take longer and that’s boring, unless something interesting is going to happen. That means, the monster needs more special abilities to challenge the players.

Monsters have a bonus to their roll which doesn’t just determine the likelihood of hitting a character: the margin also determines the damage dealt, and winning the opposed roll also means that the monster keeps the initiative, allowing it to use special abilities that the players cannot easily defend against.

Let’s take an example monster from the latest copy of Just Halberds:

  • medusas ♡♡♡♡, +2 with their soft voice, +3 with their petrifying snake hair

So, if the party has a strong fighter who attacks with a +3 and gets the initiative, I’d say that the medusa has to roll +0 against his terrible blows. If the medusa has the initiative, however, and the fighter hasn’t prepared for her snake hair with a mirror, then the medusa gets to attack with a +3 and the fighter has to roll +0 against her petrifying hair.

It’s interesting to compare OD&D and Just Halberds when it comes to the effect of increasing the important stat.

My problem, for the moment, is how to model really dangerous opponents. How strong is Lawin the dragon hunter and why is he interested in hiring the party to go and slay the red dragon Burning Bone of the Mountain? Hex Describe says:

  • The dragon hunter fighter Lawin (level 9) is trying to hire two score desperate peasants to go and slay Burning Bone of the Mountain (2209). “I’ll be fair: half of the treasure found for me, half to be shared amongst the other survivors.” A potion of fire resistance (deep alizarin crimson, 1h). A map of the dungeon The Deepest Prison (2209). A black plate armour of Nergal +3, inscribed with runes of fire spelling doom and despair.
  • Boss Monster: the red dragon Burning Bone of the Mountain (HD 10 AC -1 1d8/1d8/4d8 F10 MV 24 ML 10 XP 1000; fire (as much as the dragon has hp left, save vs. dragon breath for half))

I feel like the fighter is about the same level as the dragon, has about as many hit-points, can hit as easily, but only has one attack where as the dragon has three, not counting its breath weapon. The fighter, however, has a potion to protect against the breath weapon, so perhaps he just needs henchmen to soak all that brutal damage while he kills the dragon. Works for me.

But how do we create a similar dynamic using Just Halberds? Let’s check what my notes say:

  • heroes ♡♡♡♡♡♡, +2, with heavy armour and a shield
  • dragons ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 with their dragon breath

As it is, the dragon slayer is going to avoid facing the dragon’s breath due to the potion, so I’m going to assume that whatever else the dragon has, it’s going to be less powerful: he’s going to fight with +2. That means that hero and dragon are on equal footing, more or less. The dragon can simply take more damage.

Hm. 🤔

I think this means that dragons need a much bigger bonus. Who’s going to be on equal footing with a dragon? A hero being a fighter (+1), a sword-fighter (+1), with a magic weapon (+1), knowing two or three extra tricks (+3) that I haven’t detailed, right? So dragons should get +6, in order to match that, right? And if regular soldiers attack it with a mere +1, the difference of 5 on average makes sure that most of the time, one of the regular soldiers dies. And that’s just when the dragon doesn’t get to use it’s dragon breath.

That’s a pretty devastating power:

  • dragon breath ☆ burns down an entire village; anybody who cannot run must die

I guess if I were to model the killing of Smaug by Bard in Laketown (Wikipedia), I’d say that the secret knowledge imparted by the thrush nullifies the dragon’s defenses so he must roll +0 and Bard gets to roll +3 for his job as archer, his specialisation with the bow, and his special black arrow.

The dragon still has ten hits, which would require a total amount of differences of twenty! How on earth is that going to work?

Maybe in this situation, we could simulate this as requiring one blow and the previous rolls leading up to it to be positioning rolls, entrapment, false trails, lures, deception. It’s not clear to me what sort of bonus you’d use to do that, though.

@paulczege offered some interesting ideas on Mastodon:

Give monsters a “recipe” of certain kinds of attacks it takes to kill them. An ettin might take a “suprise attack” (one rolled with Dex instead of Strength) plus a “heavy strike”, but maybe a couple of successful regular attacks is enough for players to keep the initiative until they get to it. A group of goblins might take a “mook flurry”. A dragon might take a sequence of successful “overstrike” attacks (where a player rolls better than the attack by the prior player).

I guess in the case of Bard vs. Smaug I could say that the ten hits might also be due to awesome armour and actually knowing the weak spot would nullify the armour... Perhaps the dragon only has four hits when discounting the armour? That would still require a difference of eight in the opposed 2d6 roll... but at least it’s possible to pull off.

Some sort of extra “killing blow” rules might still be required. I have to think about this some more.

We could return to the OD&D +1/+3 vs. somebody magic weapons I love so much.

If Bard is using a +1/+3 vs. dragons arrow, and we’re more liberal with granting Bard special abilities, then how about this:

  • +1 for his job as archer
  • +1 for his experience as captain of a company
  • +1 for his sharp eyes
  • +1 for his hatred of Smaug
  • +3 for using a +1/+3 vs. dragons black arrow

That’s a +7 attack vs. a dragon’s absolute weak spot, where the dragon has to roll +0. A difference of 7 would be worth at least four damage plus special effects. If the dragon only has 4 hits without his dragon armour, then it could work...

But wow. So much special casing. I guess that explains why it’s a feat worthy of being told.

And that also tells me that epic fights will go up into the +7 bonuses to the rolls and that epic armour will add up to six hits, and that I can use OD&D magic armour and weapon bonuses as-is.


Comments on 2020-04-12 The effects of stats in simple games

Really enjoying your work on just halberds. Recent stuff I’ve been reading that’s rules light: 1) Silent Titans (based off Into the Odd, see also Into the Dungeon: Revived.) 2) Trophy Gold (recent Kickstarter, very interesting approach to streamlining adventure module design) 3) Searchers of the Unknown (probably most closely aligned with 2d6 ethos)

starmonkey 2020-04-13 10:35 UTC

Hm, the copy of Searchers of the Unknown is from 2009, collected with many variants in this collection from 2012. Is that the one you were looking at? As far as I know it uses regular D&D dice: 1d20 to hit and all that.

I have Silent Titans but wasn’t too impressed. Maybe I should take another look and focus on the rules for a bit.

Tells me more about Trophy Gold – or post a link?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-13 13:22 UTC

Trophy Gold (there are 2 variants, the Gold one is the most relevant)

Silent Titans: Initially I was turned off for similar reasons you mentioned. What I’ve now found from reading it, spending time thinking about it, has revealed something very playable in my mind, a fire has been lit in my brain. I want to run this thing.

Regarding Searchers, I wasn’t referring to the mechanics, more the stripped back mechanics (apologies, I was not clear about that!)

starmonkey 2020-04-13 13:45 UTC

Thank you for the link. I’ll give Silent Titans another look. As for minimal d20 systems – I was a big M20 fan back in 2008. Good times! Sadly my players wanted to switch to D&D 3.5! 😅

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-13 16:55 UTC

The initiative rules are very cool - a blend of DW and more traditional D&D.

I really like that since combat is an opposed roll, the defender can damage the attacker, and then take the initiative.

Q1) How do you stop one player from continually nominating themselves to go next? How do you share that around? I’m assuming the PCs should nominate another PC to “go next”?

Q2) For ranged combat against someone without a ranged weapon, what happens if the defender rolls better than the attacker?

Starmonkey 2020-04-14 05:24 UTC

Good questions!

As for nominations, we’ve basically settled on “nominate someone else”. I also think that this is something that would self regulate. People do the right thing without needing a rule and sometimes that means that the player with a non-combat character never gets nominated in a fight! But then monsters will like attacking the non-combat character so every now and then they still get to roll.

As for ranged combat, on the occasions this happened, players fired ranged weapons until they lost initiative at which point the monsters either fled or closed in and their counter is actually their melee attack that their finally manage to pull off. You might have to spin a tale of slow giants throwing trees, or one failed roll standing in for many volleys of arrows in which the giant was able to approach, and so on. There is a slightly awkward moment when players counter with: “but we really wanted to keep our distance!” To that I say, “Yes, but the giant also really wanted to corner you and so he pursued you and now your standing with your back to the cliff and there’s no easy way out and he is swinging his club...”

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-14 06:05 UTC

Yeah, my instinct is to interpret the defenders win as movement. So the PC attempts to shoot the Tiger and fails, the result being the Tiger has charged the PC and now has initiative on the next roll. The Tiger doesn’t cause damage in the first failed roll, but it’s poised to do so in the second.

starmonkey 2020-04-15 02:55 UTC

Hah. I would have had the tiger deal damage on that roll.

I did not expect to see a tiger attack page on Wikipedia...

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-15 06:24 UTC

“Measures to prevent tiger attacks” – Tiger scarecrows!

starmonkey 2020-04-16 14:05 UTC

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2020-04-10 Monsters and Spells for Just Halberds

I’ve added some monsters and spells to Just Halberds. The monsters

As you can see in the list below, it’s not always about fighting. Bureaucrats make life difficult for you, bards make fun of you, bandits blackmail you. When looking at the numbers below, remember that this is their best skill. If bandits add one when threatening people, they probably don’t add anything when you beat them up. When boars add one when charging, they probably don’t add anything when in melee.

  • bandits ♡, +1 when threatening, blackmailing, ambushing, hiding
  • bards ♡, +2 when singing and dancing, telling stories and mocking people
  • basilisks ♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 due to their poisonous miasma
  • bears ♡♡♡, +2 when they are hurt or defending their young
  • boars ♡♡♡, +2 when charging into melee
  • bureaucrats ♡, +1 when using forms and prescriptions
  • demons ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 with their flaming weapon
  • dragons ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 with their dragon breath
  • dwarves ♡♡♡♡, +2 when handling stone, with heavy armour and a shield
  • elves ♡, +2 when using their charm
  • frogling ♡, +1 in the first round when jumping
  • general ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡, +2 when at war, with heavy armour and a shield
  • ghouls ♡♡, +2 when underground and using their aura of fear
  • giants ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 when they can use their size
  • guards ♡♡♡, +0, with light armour and a shield
  • harpies ♡♡♡, +2 when using their charm
  • hellhounds ♡♡♡♡♡, +2 with their fire breath
  • heroes ♡♡♡♡♡♡, +2, with heavy armour and a shield
  • knights ♡♡♡♡♡, +2, with heavy armour and a shield
  • lizard people ♡♡, +1 when telling stories
  • medusas ♡♡♡♡, +2 with their soft voice, +3 with their petrifying snake hair
  • minotaurs ♡♡♡♡♡♡, +2 in their labyrinth
  • mummies ♡♡♡♡♡, +2 with their dry voice, -1 when faced with water
  • nagas ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 with their sea of flames and their charm
  • orks ♡, +1 when using violence or handling iron
  • spies ♡, +2 when forging, lying, sneaking, or disguising themselves
  • thieves ♡, +1 when sneaking, climbing, and stealing
  • trolls ♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 as long they stand on solid ground
  • vampires ♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 with their power of domination
  • werewolves ♡♡♡♡, +2 in their wild shape
  • witches ♡♡♡♡♡, +2 when using their charm and throwing their curses
  • wolves and wardogs ♡♡, +0 but tough

I basically took the monsters from Halberds & Helmets that I really liked, looked at their hit dice and the write-ups I had done at the time, and picked a bonus. 🙂

Then I wrote up some spells based on the elemental magic users I have in my campaign (one for each element and an animal friend), and the spells I noted on the monster list above and tried to keep it to a line each in the PDF. A ☆ marks the more powerful spells. Learning them should be a reward from somebody in the game. Learning spells in-game from other people remains an aspect I still like very much about the B/X magic system! See 2013-11-26 A Strict Reading of the Magic System for more.

Here’s the list I have so far:

  • air bending controls the air flow in your vicinity (smell, spores, poison)
  • aura of fear ☆ prevents opponents nearby from acting against you
  • charm makes others act like your best friends using your voice (and revulsion, later)
  • domination ☆ forces an opponent to obey your orders (and pure hatred, later)
  • dragon breath ☆ burns down an entire village; anybody who cannot run must die
  • fire ball ☆ causes a small explosion on a surface you can see, throwing people around
  • fire bolt hits an opponent you can see and sets things on fire
  • fire breath ☆ sets somebody nearby on fire, dealing continuous damage
  • flaming weapon turns an ordinary weapon into a flaming +1 weapon, for a fight
  • hail of stones raises nearby pebbles and stones and throws them at a target
  • icicle hits an opponent you can see but needs water to turn into ice
  • poisonous miasma ☆ poisons an entire village and those that cannot leave must die
  • sea of flames sets everything around you on fire, dealing damage to all who stay
  • strangulation lifts somebody up and keeps hurting them
  • talk to animals enables you to speak to all the animals around you
  • wave requires a source of water and magnifies it in order to wash away anything

Perhaps it’s more interesting to consider how I adjudicate some of the spells.

Spells that can conceivably deal damage, deal damage. A spell like wave washes away opponents when the difference is five or more, or if the opponent is out of hits.

Spells that enable a subsequent effect need to either happen before combat, like the flaming weapon, or require the initiative, and not doing anything, and therefore losing the initiative without an opposed roll.

Spells that affect multiple people at the same time involve all of them rolling their dice and comparing their result to the result of the spell-caster. So when Fo Pi casts a fire ball all the orcs in the target area need roll. If they roll less than the fire-mage, they take damage.

Spells that only have a special effect like charm can still have an effect based on the difference of the roll: one or two is the bare minimum, like the victim agreeing to some course of action and being reluctant about it. Three or four is the full effect, like the victim being charmed and doing the thing like a friend would. Five or more is a decisive effect, like the victim being a loyal friend for a day or a week, depending on how gullible they are.


Comments on 2020-04-10 Monsters and Spells for Just Halberds

This is a very tight way of stating monsters; I like it very much.

Having small HPs for heroes and enemies is good to maintain the numbers low and ease the use of maths. It also keeps the battles tense and short, combatants can die fast if they are not careful. Oh, and the heart icon is perfect. 😍 All this reminds me of Zelda, in a good way.

We can also apply to monsters the format used by D&D +1/+3 vs somebody magic weapons. For example:

  • orks ♡, +1 when using violence or handling iron / +3 when confronting elves
  • skeletons ♡, -1 by day / +1 at night
  • trolls ♡♡♡♡♡♡, +3 as long they stand on solid ground / +5 when defending their bridge

One final idea is to link HPs to monsters abilities and bonuses. When a monster loses half its HPs it may lose one special ability or get its roll penalized.

– Ludos Curator 2020-04-30 18:05 UTC

Yeah, that would work!

And yes, Zelda was an inspiration for the heart. 😀

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-30 19:45 UTC

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2020-04-07 Opposed 2d6 rolls

I got an interesting question on Reddit the other day:

Why use opposed 2d6?

Firstly, I think I like rolling dice as a referee so designs where the referee rolls no dice weren’t appealing, e.g. Dungeon World. Second, in systems where the referee sets difficulty levels I feel continuously stressed out by having to determine all these things, maybe even defend my assessment against players, e.g. Traveller. When I saw the opposed roll in the Blackmoor documentary, I saw that rolling for circumstances was best: I can always interpret the oracle of the dice.

That is, instead of wondering “how difficult is this computer to hack, exactly?” I can simply decide “it’s probably a bit harder than normal” and roll 2d6+1, and then we’ll all know whether this computer has decent ICE installed...


Comments on 2020-04-07 Opposed 2d6 rolls

Funny you should mention Traveller. There used to be a thing in classic Traveller called a “situation throw” which was just as you describe: I in my 20th century ignorance have no idea how hard it is to repair the air scrubber in the derelict vessel, so I roll 2d6 to determine the difficulty.

Traveller dice modifiers can be tacked on with a simple ±1 for each beneficial or unfortunate circumstance that is established before the roll, and the DM’s job of rationalizing why the scrubber is in such poor shape that it requires a 10 or better is a bit easier than figuring out what it “should” be.

– Christopher Jahnke 2020-04-08 00:12 UTC

Absolutely. I saw that in Chris Kubasik’s wonderful blog posts in 2017/2018: What “The Traveller” Adventure had to Say About Situation Throws and part 2 with Randomized Situation Numbers. I approve. 🙂

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-08 05:44 UTC

This! Feeling stressed about determining the difficulty of a task I absolutely didn’t think of while prepping the game. That’s probably the one thing I find most irritating when GM’ing.

I’m now thinking of doing opposed rolls with the usual d20 roll high on the players side (because that’s what they’re used to), and a bell curve Nd6 roll on the GMs side.

Wanderer Bill 2020-04-09 18:42 UTC

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